Tu B’Shvat 5777

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 10 February 2017


On the first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; the House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

The Mishnah records two differing opinions regarding the date of the New Year for Trees, Tu B’Sh’vat: the School of Shammai sets the date for 1st Sh’vat, to coincide with the new moon; while the School of Hillel designates the date to coincide with the full moon on 15th of the month.

Although there is no reference to the festival in the Torah, there is a connection with the law in Leviticus (19:23-25) which prohibits the eating of fruit from any tree that is less than three years old. Tu Bi’Sh’vat is the date from which one counts the age of a tree, thereby determining whether the fruit can be eaten or not.

Why the difference of opinion? Shammai’s decision is consistent with the dates of the three other New Years mentioned in the Mishnah: 1st Nisan marking the New Year for kings and festivals; 1st Ellul for the tithing of animals and 1st Tishri – ‘the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables.’

It would make every sense for each of the four New Years mentioned in the Mishnah to begin on the first of the month. On the other hand, both Pesach and Sukkot begin on the 15th day of the month and perhaps Hillel wished to increase the importance of this festival by celebrating it on the full moon. There may also be a practical reason: by waiting another two weeks, the winter rains in Israel may have passed and the trees more likely to be in flower.

What is both extraordinary and moving about this festival – which has come to have great significance in our own time because of its message about the value of trees, their fruit and blossom – is not the dispute over the date, but the idea of celebrating our relationship with nature.

How do we see the trees around us? When we see the trees in our gardens, or parks or lining the roads; when we contemplate the stark outline of a single tree on a hill against the sky, or discern the shapes of trees in a forest – what is it that we see?
This is the question that Martin Buber asks – implicitly – in I and Thou:
‘I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…’

When we experience the tree in this way, seeing it as a member of a species or the way it is constructed, it becomes our object. But, says Buber, ‘it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.’

At that moment, every way in which we might regard the tree – its species, its image and movement, its colour and form – all are inseparably fused into one; it stands in relation to us, we stand in relation to its reality, to its ‘tree-ness.’
For Buber, this unmediated and direct relationship with the tree is a paradigm for our relationship with another human being. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship is not a relationship of objectification; it is wholly reciprocal, nothing – no foreknowledge and therefore no prejudice – can intervene between one person and another; such an encounter is a moment of grace, as though all the varied strands that make up human existence are, for a brief moment, fused into one thread, one timeless moment of unity.
From our contemplation of the trees around us, to the meaningful and fruitful relationships that emerge from our encounter with others, emerges the third sphere in which we build a relationship – with that which is beyond the material world – with a glimpse of eternity, the mystery of the eternal ‘You.’

This is Buber – mysterious himself, complex, difficult – but offering something that can be healing to the broken spirit and the broken times in which we live; something that takes us beyond greed, materialism, ownership and oppression, to a place of grace, of nearness to God, of unity, hope and redemption.

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